The Chernobyl fungus that discovered a “new form of photosynthesis” and ended up on the International Space Station.

On April 26, 1986, the story stopped at Chernobyl. Since then, thousands of eyes have been observing the vicinity of Pripyat, in Ukraine, with a mixture of curiosity and fear. This is how in the early 1990s, scientists studying the area they realized there were fungi.

There were many mushrooms. A lot of. So many that a microbiologist from the Kiev Institute of Microbiology and Virology, Nelli Zhdanova, traveled to the area to study what were those mushrooms they were conquering not just the walls of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor but every inch of land that surrounded it.

The Chernobyl fungus that discovered a “new form of photosynthesis” and ended up on the International Space Station

The mystery of brown mushrooms

Zhdanova and her team found more than 200 different types of mushrooms. Something already very surprising, but perhaps the most curious thing is that the vast majority of them contained melanin. Melanin, which is known to darken human skin and hair, not only ‘colored’ fungi but (as we know) absorbed radiation and protects the body from its effects.

It was not the only site where melanin fungi had been found. Although they are relatively rare, they have been found in high mountain regions and in polar areas. That is, in places with few nutrients and high exposure to ultraviolet rays. Zhdanova’s results left a question in the air: Could we have found radiosynthesis?

The Chernobyl fungus that discovered a “new form of photosynthesis” and ended up on the International Space Station

The dawn of radiosynthesis

Radiosynthesis was a process theorized by the Russian scientist SI Kuznetsov in 1956 and basically consists of capturing and metabolizing ionizing radiation in a way analogous to what plants do during photosynthesis. For years it was just that, a theory.

But a team from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York decided to pursue the issue. Ekaterina Dadachova and Arturo Casadevall wondered if, indeed, melanin could play an important role in metabolic reactions.

The Chernobyl fungus that discovered a “new form of photosynthesis” and ended up on the International Space Station

In 2007 they discovered that pigment could indeed play a key role in metabolic oxidation. In fact, the researchers induced a colony of C. neoformans to produce melanin and when exposed to a source of radiation ionized you 500 times higher than normal, his growth skyrocketed. Something that also happened with the Chernobyl mushrooms.

That is, the fungi that contained melanin could, indeed, generate energy under certain conditions. And since then we have been trying to take advantage of this. Since many of those mushrooms are edible, the idea of ​​using this property on long journeys through space was promising. There were those who did not give a penny (3 cents) for her.

The Chernobyl fungus that discovered a “new form of photosynthesis” and ended up on the International Space Station

A few months ago, the genome of a group of mushrooms that had been grown on the International Space Station and that will give us fundamental keys to understand a world that we have just begun to discover.